November 10, 2021
By Eric R. Poole
At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy, then-Captain William “Mac” McMillan Jr., U.S. Marine Corps, was poised to compete in a three-way shootoff for the gold medal in rapid-fire pistol shooting. He had once shot a score of 594/600, so the 587 he posted before the two-hour break might not have been enough to unnerve his Soviet and Finnish opponents. However, the short nap that followed did. McMillan later told reporters, “Relaxation is vital to excelling in this sport. The Russian was pretty uptight, pacing up and down.”
The gold medal earned at the 1960 Olympics was McMillan’s finest hour in a competitive shooting career that spanned nearly 40 years and included six Olympic appearances. Accompanying him was Team Captain Lt. Col. Walter Walsh, himself a shooting legend and two-time Olympian. Then there was a quiet armorer. In an interview with the Navy Times the year prior, McMillan made reference to this armorer after becoming the record-setting world pistol champion in 1959. It was published that much credit for his successful performances was due to a “sergeant” who kept his guns in top condition. “He is the most versatile, exacting and hard-working pistol armorer I have ever known.
That “sergeant” was then-Gunnery Sergeant Paul Blazejowski, a slender, dark-haired Leatherneck. GySgt. Blazejowski was more than a typical armorer; he was a shooter’s armorer who built the match-winning, record-setting revolvers, .22s and Colt .45s primarily for use by the Marine Corps pistol team. However, at public events such as the National Matches held at Camp Perry, Ohio, the Gunny could often be found servicing the handguns of other competitors, including Mrs. Gertrude Backstrom, a diminutive housewife from Hoquiam, Washington. She not only defended her women’s national pistol championship four times, she stunned the male-dominated shooting community by winning overall High Civilian shooting honors in 1957.
“He built the .45 I used to go Distinguished with in 1970,” says retired Maj. Jim Land, former Commanding Officer of the Marine Corps Pistol Team. “That’s also the pistol I carried to Vietnam in 1966. I bought that .45 from the DCM for $19.95 plus $3 for shipping back then, gave it to him and told him I wanted a good ball gun, which is what you need to complete your legs when attempting to go Distinguished. Turns out, the pistol I got from [the Director of Civilian Marksmanship] was an actual National Match pistol. I didn’t realize it until he pointed the ‘NM’ out on the receiver. I just gave it to him and said this is what I want, so he made me a ball gun. And the interesting thing is, he had to strip all the parts marked ‘NM’ or ‘National Match.’ When I was getting ready to go to Vietnam on my first tour, I went back and asked him to loosen things up a bit because it was going to get dirty. That created more consternation in the Rifle Team Equipment [RTE] shop because every armorer is geared toward making pistols tighter and still function. Now they have my pistol working for ball competitions and I ask them to loosen it up. Gunny did, and it worked well for me over there.”
In addition to collecting and repairing antique guns through his teenage years while growing up in Meriden, Connecticut, Blazejowski was an excellent marksman with both rifles and pistols. When asked why he preferred modifying pistols to shooting them, he said, “Well, all of the good gun factories in the U.S. are within 30 miles of my home. I guess this had something to do with it.”
Enlisting in 1944, he went on to Korea in 1951 and served in combat with the 5th Marines as a small-arms repairman (MOS 2111) along the frontlines. After his return to the States, he began competing in small matches as well as division and joint-service pistol tournaments. In September 1953, then-Sergeant Blazejowski won the 4th Naval District Matches held at the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. General Bethels gave them the honor of presenting Blazejowski’s team with their trophies shortly after in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Blazejowski briefly served as an armorer and small-arms repair instructor at the Marine Corps Supply Center in Albany, Georgia, then became a certified gunsmith (MOS 2112).
In January 1958, Blazejowski was given the opportunity for reassignment to the Marksmanship Training Unit in San Diego, California. The 43-man Marine Corps Pistol and Revolver Team became his focus, and he set aside competing in order to improve the function and accuracy of his teammates’ hardware. To enhance his abilities, he volunteered for special training he needed at the factories of Colt, Hi-Standard and Smith & Wesson to further study his team’s .22-, .38- and .45-caliber pistols and revolvers.
The armorer’s workshop is a popular place for shooters with gun problems, and it became a matter of routine that SSgt. Blazejowski would work 17 hours a day during the fast-action matches. He grew a reputation for dependable service, always willing to listen to a shooter’s troubles and then give a comprehensive check for faulty parts, sight alignment or malfunctions. Going above and beyond, he’d inspect further for correct slide clearance over a receiver and correct sear angles on a .45 just to make sure the pistol he gave back was in tip-top condition. As a staff sergeant responsible for other armorers, he insisted that his armory attempt to remove every flaw from a pistol prior to match competition. Though he was modest about his part in keeping competitors winning, SSgt. Blazejowski was credited by various military newspapers, the NRA’s American Rifleman magazine and even Sports Illustrated for averaging 25 gun repairs each day at the National Matches in 1958.
Statistically, only about half of the military’s armorers are good shooters. Some are just good gun plumbers. Blazejowski was unique in that he was both. He knew what it was like to be a competitor who needed to relate problems with a pistol to a small arms repairman, but he also understood what improvements could be made to instill confidence back into the pistol shooter.
“Over half, maybe 60 percent of armorers have never shot as competitors,” says Maj. Jim Land. “A good armorer is half psychiatrist because what’s running through that shooter’s mind is a lack of confidence in that firearm, and he might not understand or be able to explain what the problem is. Once a shooter loses confidence in a gun, no matter what that armorer may do to it, [the armorer has] to convince him that everything is fine with the gun. The armorer has to figure out how to overcome this and come up with a solution. Shooters are always bringing in their guns and asking for a different trigger. The armorer usually asks, ‘Well, what kind of trigger do you want?’ The reply usually goes, ‘I don’t care! Just change it!’ Then, an armorer is up all damn night working on that trigger, thinking of what that shooter might want to feel. It may be that a little more overtravel adjustment is necessary to help that shooter improve his follow-through. So I think it does help that an armorer like Blazejowski has a background as a shooter.”
When Blazejowski entered the Marine Corps, pistols used in competition only featured fixed-position raised sights. There wasn’t any way to readily adjust them except to file on the front sight to raise elevation. Back at the team van behind the firing line, the armorers had a vise that could be used to slide the rear notch to center up a group. When adjustable sights were introduced, the bullseye pistol game rapidly evolved. In the early ’30s, Marine armorers abandoned Colt’s straight barrel profile and started putting a bump on the end, which improved barrel fit with the bushing. After that, work commenced on improving an M1911’s lockup at the rear barrel lugs. The result was a competitive .45 that produced groups no larger than 2½ inches at 50 yards.
In September 1959, Tech. Sgt. Blazejowski was called upon by the Springfield Armory Ordnance Corps to help them develop a National Match program. He visited the famous armory in Massachusetts and demonstrated to Springfield Armory’s engineering team the methods Marine Corps team armorers were using to accurize pistols for competitions and explained the reasons why armorers performed certain operations. In addition to learning the many facets of match pistol work, Blazejowski showed engineers various experimental parts that he had been developing and testing in his shop. These included a lightened hammer shaved of material on the left and right sides, as well as a clever ambidextrous thumb safety for the 1911A1 the likes of which had never been seen before. He crafted the safety for left-handed shooters by taking an M1911 thumb safety and turning it upside-down, trimming it, then tack-welding a piece of sheetmetal on top for an extended shelf. He bored out the safety’s shaft and threaded it for a small screw installed on the right-side thumb safety. Hence, the ambidextrous M1911 thumb safety was born. After his departure, Lt. Col. C.E. Septfonds Jr. typed Blazejowski’s commanding staff an official Letter of Appreciation, stating, “The visit of Sgt. Blazejowski, together with his submission of ideas toward the betterment of the National Match Program, exemplifies to a high degree the cooperation and coordination between the Springfield Armory and the Marine Corps in advancing the ideals of marksmanship so essential to the welfare of the foot soldier.”
In 1962, GySgt. Blazejowski was temporarily assigned to support Okinawa’s range detachment, 3rd Division at Camp Schwab and work with the Chinese marines. In April of that year, they organized a friendly tournament and fired against the 1st Chinese Marine Division, creating a new bond between the two nations. The Marine Corps team won every contest, a match that even Blazejowski took part in. He posted the highest overall scores of the match and won individual pistol honors, as well as team awards with MSgt. M.A. Ritter of the 9th Marines and SSgt. C. Campbell of the 3rd Force Service Regiment (FSR). When not competing, Blazejowski and one of his esteemed armorers, Sgt. T.G. Parker, displayed initiative and spent many hours assisting and instructing their Chinese counterparts in the techniques of match-conditioning rifles and pistols. The effort drew later praise from Lt. General Ching Wei-Yuan, the commandant of the Chinese marine corps, who personally wrote a lengthy letter, one side in English and the other in Chinese.
GySgt. Paul Blazejowski was one armorer in the Marine Corps who could modify a regular-issue pistol and turn it into a match performer. In support of two Olympics as the team armorer, he was recognized by Col. McMillan as one of the few men familiar enough with the Swiss Hammerli and Walther rapid- and slow-fire pistols to render the team competitive at an international level.
“You have to have a knack for it,” said Blazejowski. “Modifying pistols is a very tedious business. You’ve got to have plenty of patience.” He said that a good armorer can improve an issued pistol into a match pistol in about four to six hours if he has the right equipment, but that every part must be changed and fitted. “Certain parts may require cutting down, the trigger must be adjusted, and the overall barrel and stock may require conditioning,” Blazejowski said. “I like working on pistols because I like to fire them. I can build my own guns, and at the same time I can build guns for others to improve their shooting ability.”
Blazejowski retired from the Corps as a Master Gunnery Sergeant (MGySgt.), the highest enlisted rank a Marine armorer can achieve in this field. He is still considered one of the best gunsmiths the Corps ever knew. Years after he passed away in 1997, his widow, Doris Blazejowski, contacted Maj. Jim Land, who had become the Secretary of the National Rifle Association. She asked him to do something with her husband’s tools and parts, hoping that some would go into a museum and others to another Marine Corps armorer. Land performed an inventory and discovered Blazejowski’s infantry weapons tool kit that he had carried through the Korean War. Maj. Land sorted through the tools, segregating out anything not correct for that era. The tool kit and tools were then donated to the Marine Corps Museum at Quantico, Virginia, and remain the only set of armorer tools in the museum’s collection. In addition, all the special tools Blazejowski had used in working on the U.S. Olympic pistols were included. To his surprise, Land found the National Match parts the Gunny had originally pulled off his DCM gun. Unbeknownst to me, I would be the Marine Corps armorer selected by Maj. Land to receive the items not destined for the Marine Corps Museum.
Enter Doug Turnbull
I had just returned from serving in Iraq, and in 2004, while I was still an active Marine Corps armorer, Land designated me as the Marine to inherit Blazejowski’s vast collection of spare parts and remaining projects with the instructions that I take my time and complete as many 1911 pistols as parts would allow.
On my initial inspection, I discovered that the ambidextrous thumb safety he had shown to Springfield Armory in 1959 was included among the early experimental components. It was still marked and in a bag.
Most of the spare parts were remnants of original-issue GI 1911s that he had removed for replacement with new oversize parts needing to be hand-fitted for match shooting. Among 300 new barrel links and triggers, there were only a half-dozen 1950s-era slides with barrels, three of which were still in their unopened, stock-numbered cardboard packaging. In all, I only had enough parts to complete six M1911A1s and, curiously, one original M1911 less its frame.
It’s been 10 years since I started recreating these seven pistols, and I’ve only completed three. Trying to find stripped, serial-number-correct frames is difficult. Gun shows have resulted in two frames I needed, and a recent call from Doug Turnbull, the authority in classic firearm restoration, produced a 1917-period Colt 1911 frame I required. After a lengthy phone call, I yielded this particular build to him for completion. I cannot replicate the original Colt bluing formula as Turnbull can, and I do not have access to the dies necessary to stamp all the correct marks per the serial number.
After purchasing the frame and sending him my parts, it took Turnbull’s gunsmiths only five months to complete the project. During a visit to Turnbull’s shop in New York, I met Master Engraver Tom McArdle, who stays busy satisfying the unique relief engraving demanded by Turnbull clients who possess the highest standard for quality and unlimited resources. Considering the legend of GySgt. Blazejowski, I commissioned Turnbull to have Tom McArdle hand engrave a tasteful amount of nonspecific motifs to highlight this M1911’s features and honor Blazejowski’s unique hand skills. (Since this was a nonmatching-parts gun, I felt comfortable having a World War I-period M1911 engraved.)
McArdle added a stippled accent border around the slide’s left- and right-side slabs containing several scrolling waves and flourishes. The modest engraving also appears on the frame near the pins and controls, as well as on top of the arched slide, in front of the sights and low on the frontstrap. Even the directions of the grain seen on the surface of each part are true to the original Colt pattern, as well as the charcoal bluing and diamond-checkered stocks. No detail was left untouched, and every one of Blazejowski’s parts, once stripped from a single World War I-period M1911, has been reunited with a period-correct “UNITED STATES PROPERTY” frame. If I were a competitor walking up to the back of Blazejowski’s mobile armory, this is the pistol I would be presenting him. I have yet to see if it can hold the Marine’s 2½-inch group at 50 yards, but in every other way it’s flawless.
A champion shooter is only as good as his gun, and the gun is only as good as the armorer who conditioned it for competitive shooting. Col. “Mac” once reminded a group of boastful Marines, “You guys walk around here with medals on your chest, but if it wasn’t for these armorers, you wouldn’t have any.”
The same could be said for this engraved World War I M1911. Once discarded in a box of spare parts, the originality of any quality-restored firearm is only as true as the artisans at Doug Turnbull’s shop can make it.
Colt 1911 Specifications
- Type: Single action, semiautomatic
- Caliber: .45 ACP
- Capacity: 7+1 rds.
- Barrel: 5 in.
- Overall Length: 8.5 in.
- Weight: 39.5 oz.
- Stocks: Walnut, checkered
- Finish: Charcoal hot blue, (Turnbull)
- Trigger: 4 lbs.
- Sights: Colt 1911, fixed
- MSRP: $2,000 to $2,500 (restoration), $1,000 (engraving shown)
- Restoration: Turnbull Restoration Co. Inc.; 585-657-6338; turnbullrestoration.com
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